Capers Grappling For Answers On Defense

Statistically, the Packers have one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history and a quarterback-heavy close to schedule. Coverage gaffes and communication breakdowns are incredibly commonplace for this veteran unit. At least time's on their side as history beckons.

In the hallway outside the Green Bay Packers' locker room at Lambeau Field, reporters gathered around offensive coordinator Joe Philbin on Monday afternoon.

The interview session lasted a few ticks longer than 7 minutes. Pretty much everything to be asked had been asked over the last few weeks. Aaron Rodgers was brilliant. Again. And the offense scored a bunch of points. Again.

Then, Dom Capers came walking down the hallway wearing a smile.

"How are you guys today?" Capers asked.

"How are you doing?" was this reporter's response, the opening salvo of a conversation that went on for about 17 1/2 minutes. Again and again, Capers was asked about a defense that's been riddled with coverage gaffes and communication breakdowns.

"Well, I'm doing fine. We're 8-0, right?" was Capers' opening reply. "Like during any other week, there's some good and there's some bad."

It's "the bad" — and the defense's apparent inability to turn things around — that's so disconcerting for a team that has a chance to write its own history and thrust itself into the conversation of one of the best teams in NFL history.

Last season, the Packers' defense was practically air-tight, especially during the second half of the season. On Sunday — coming off a bye, no less — Philip Rivers riddled the Packers' defense for 385 yards. With only one legit, proven wide receiver and with his starting running back in street clothes, Rivers completed seven passes of at least 20 yards.

It was nothing new.

In 16 games last season, the Packers allowed 3,107 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes and 44 completions of 20-plus yards. In exactly half as many games this season, the Packers have allowed 2,397 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes and 38 completions of 20-plus yards. With 299.6 passing yards allowed per game, the Packers are on pace to allow 4,794 yards through the air. That would be the worst in NFL history — the Falcons allowed 4,541 passing yards in 1995 — if not for this year's Patriots.

What's troubling is a veteran secondary — a veteran defense, really — just can't get on the same page. To be sure, nobody can replace the athletic and smart Nick Collins, but Collins' replacement, Charlie Peprah, isn't short on intelligence.

"When you've got receivers like (Antonio) Gates and (Vincent) Jackson, you're trying to match people up," Capers said. "Then you've got multiple formations and variations that puts more variables in your communication. Many times off of receiver splits, we've got communication calls we have to make. Those have to be relayed — one, two, three people might be involved in the call. When you play a team like San Diego, they create more challenges from a formation adjustment, motion, shift, you saw some empty sets."

Before the start of training camp, Capers recalled that his defense allowed 34 touchdowns in 2009 and 22 in 2010. The goal was to finish in the top five in points allowed in back-to-back seasons — the Packers hadn't done that since 1968 and 1969 — and trim the touchdown total even further. Instead, they defense has allowed 19 touchdowns already.

Fortunately, with Rodgers and his receivers looking like an unstoppable juggernaut, there's plenty of margin for error. At 8-0 and the playoffs looking like a foregone conclusion, there's time for the defense to get its act together. With 16 interceptions — compared to 24 all of last season — the secondary's penchant for making plays mitigates plenty of the damage. And it's not like the defense needs to play like it did last season, when it allowed 11.6 points per game over the final nine games.

"I was 7-0 at New Orleans one year," said Capers, recalling his final year as the Saints' defensive backs coach, 1991. "This is the first 8-0, and it's interesting because here talking to you guys, we're 8-0 and a lot of the questions are like we're 0-8, which is not all a bad thing, but I think that's part of the attitude and atmosphere in the meeting room. There's nobody in that defensive room that satisfied with being 8-0, we've got a lot more to give and as coaches and players we've got to keep challenging ourselves to improve each week, which I think is healthy environment."

Healthy, because wise veterans like Charles Woodson know what's ahead. Rivers was the opening act of a quarterback-heavy finish to the season: Minnesota's Christian Ponder, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, Detroit's Matthew Stafford, New York's Eli Manning, Oakland's Carson Palmer, Kansas City's Matt Cassel, Chicago's Jay Cutler and Stafford again. Rematches against New Orleans' Drew Brees, Manning, Matt Ryan, Stafford and Cutler are possibilities in the NFC playoffs.

To be a historically great team, the Packers need another Super Bowl. It's all in the defense's hands. For as great as Rodgers has been this season, it's hard to imagine he can almost single-handedly win three or four playoff games to give the Packers a defining repeat championship.

"The guys have a high standard," Capers said. "They know that on defense, none of us are happy with the way we're playing right now. Certain segments we're happy with. So, the only way you improve that is you go back to work and work that much harder to get better. I think that's the attitude in the defensive room. I like that attitude. It's all about what your standard is and what you accept and how hard you work to improve. The whole key to our football defensively is how much do we improve."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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